Product design: What would Steve do?

By Jonny Evans

They say success inside the Apple [AAPL] campus comes from correctly answering the question, "What would Steve [Jobs] do?" As above, so below, Netscape co-founder now venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, says, "The threshold for the release of the first product should be, 'What would Steve Jobs do?'" So, when it comes to new product design, what would he do? Here's some ideas.


[ABOVE: Apple's flagship NYC store is all about the details.]


Keep it simple stupid. Look at the iPad, iPod, iPhone or even the Macintosh for examples of this. These things aren't really simple -- they comprise hardware and software elements that have taken decades to develop. These consumer electronic gadgets are devices of great complexity, developed to look and feel as if they're of great simplicity. Apple product designers sweat and suffer for their products. These things aren't just product designs. These things are their art, their creative expression, their legacies. Great focus and complexity shrouded in express simplicity. Keeping it simple is a whole heap harder than leaving it complicated. And this simplicity is essential to articulating a successful user experience.

"Design is a funny word. Some people think design means how it looks," Apple's Steve Jobs once told Wired. "But of course, if you dig deeper, it's really how it works. The design of the Mac wasn't what it looked like, although that was part of it. Primarily, it was how it worked. To design something really well, you have to get it. You have to really grok what it's all about. It takes a passionate commitment to really thoroughly understand something, chew it up, not just quickly swallow it. Most people don't take the time to do that."

Lead, don't follow

The iPad didn't kill PC sales. Lack of imagination did that. Let's not be too fanboi about this, I'd agree that Dell has done much more than Apple in terms of bringing personal computing to the masses by offering PCs the rest of us can afford, but the fact remains the need to follow your own path is key to any form of disruptive philosophy. In Apple's case, the company doesn't listen to focus groups, but draws inspiration from its own imaginative take on what's happening in the world and the potential of emerging technologies.

"Apple is a company that doesn't have the most resources in the world, and the way we've succeeded is to bet the right technological horse," said Steve Jobs at D8. "We try to pick things that are in their springs. And if you choose wisely, you can be quite successful."

"How can I possibly ask somebody what a graphics-based computer ought to be when they have no idea what a graphic based computer is? No one has ever seen one before," he also once said.

Don't ask Wall Street

Typically financial market's investment patterns favor short term gains above long term prosperity. That kind of focus encourages investors to prioritize a firm's bottom line. When a firm also looks to its bottom line it turns into a company that's focused on turnover, not product design. Apple shows these things aren't incompatible, but the focus has to be product-led.

"It starts with great products," says Jobs. The irony is that by resisting Wall Street's focus on profits in favor of a focus on r&d and product design, Apple became prosperous. The message here could be, "If you want to have a successful company, don't listen to Wall Street." There's also many within Apple who would happily replace the phrase "Wall Street" with "the media" to the same effect, ie. "If you want to make a good product, don't let the media dictate what it does."


[ABOVE: The original bondi blue iMac didn't have a floppy disc drive. We got over that pretty fast.]

Slash and burn

As anyone who has ever been hurt through clinging onto relationships their inner selves already knew were done should have learned, you shouldn't wait for an ending to happen, you should bring it on at a time of your own choosing.

That's just as true in product design, when a technology is dead, declare it dead and move on. Apple's famous move to abandon the floppy drive is a case in point. As Jobs puts it:

"Sometimes when we get rid of things, people call us crazy….But sometimes you just have to pick the things that are going to be the right horse to ride forward….And Flash has had its day."

Care, a lot

Interviewed by Playboy in the 80's, Steve Jobs said of the Mac, "We built it for ourselves. We were a group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren't going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build. When you're a carpenter making a beautiful chest of drawers, you're not going to use a piece of plywood on the back, even though it faces the wall and no one's ever going to see it. You'll know it's there so you'll use a beautiful piece of wood on the back. For you to sleep well at night, the aesthetic, the quality, has to be carried all the way through."

Apple's chief designer, Jony Ive, has previously said, "I understand that if you are prepared to keep going, if you really, really care, I think that's fundamental." The soul of the firm is in this caring: "Our goal is to develop the very best products we can, and if we do well, the company makes money."

Sweat the detail

Jobs is renowned as a micro-manager. When the company was preparing for the launch of iLife, he famously spent hours in a presentation room critiquing the iPhoto icon, insisting that element was just right.

It's all about the details: from the product's conception to what's inside of it; from the components used and where they are sourced to the software and tweaking that to get the best possible performance from the chosen components; from what it does to how it looks. Beyond this, it's about how these things are presented, marketed and sold. Watch out for what Apple doesn't say about a product, often it is where the future of the device may lie.

Jobs again, "Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while."

(This focus isn't trivial: Jobs even had samples of the marble used in the floor of the company's flagship New York store [illustrated up top] shipped to Cupertino first so he could make sure it was just right).

There's no one man army

There's no question Jobs is Apple's leader. This does not mean he undervalues his teams. He knows there's no such thing as a one man army. In a 1985 interview, he sums up the importance of teams. "What I'm best at doing is finding a group of talented people and making things with them."

Apple-watchers, what would you add? Perhaps you're a product designer, so how does Apple inform the way you do design? Love or loathe the company, its influence is clear, how else do you think its behavior could inform a product designer? Let us all know in comments below.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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